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Who is Eugene Debs?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Eugene Debs (1855-1926) was a famous American labor organizer and activist. He is often credited with being a vital force in the American labor movement, and he was certainly prominent in a number of America labor organizations at the turn of the 20th century. Debs was also a remarkably forward thinking man who was often commended for his generosity, sensitivity, and strong convictions.

Debs was born in Terra Haute, Indiana to French immigrants, and he lived much of his life in the state of Indiana. His first job was in a railyard, and he worked in a variety of positions within the railroad industry before being laid off in 1873 and returning to Terra Haute to work as a grocery clerk. Debs' early associations with the railroad industry undoubtedly laid the groundwork for his emergence as a prominent labor activist, and the first signs of this emerged when he participated in the founding of a local chapter of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Fireman.

In 1884, Eugene Debs was elected to the Indiana House of Representatives as a Democrat. 10 years later, he found himself imprisoned for participating in a strike, and he was introduced to socialist writers by other inmates. When he emerged, Eugene Debs had embraced the socialist ideal, and he ultimately became the head of the American Socialist Party, participating in the founding of the International Labor Union (ILU) and the International Workers of the World (IWW) along the way. He also ran for President as a socialist candidate no less than five times, once from prison, and garnered a respectable share of the vote.

During his time as a labor activist, Eugene Debs distinguished himself in a number of ways. He refused to condone racism, for example, and spoke out actively against the Communist Party, pointing to abuses in Russia and China under the Communists. Debs was also an outspoken critic of the First World War, and ultimately ended up in jail under the Espionage Act for stating his beliefs about the war. Many people who knew him personally said that he was incredibly gentle and generous, and would give away the shirt on his back if someone needed it.

Eugene Debs and his wife, Kate Metzel, had no children, but Debs left a more intangible legacy. His advancement of socialist causes and labor rights in the United States undoubtedly inspired many of the initiatives of the New Deal, which helped the United States recover from a massive depression in the 1930s. The egalitarian views of Eugene Debs also encouraged early cooperation between races and genders in the labor movement, setting the stage for integration of society at large.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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